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E-ZPass Still Not Inter-operable, Two Years After Deadline

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Since the advent of electronic toll collection, toll agencies have been pushing for nationwide inter-operability. Inter-operability allows a toll road user with an account in one state to use that tolling technology on toll roads in a different state. In 2013, the bill that reauthorized federal surface transportation policy and funding, MAP-21, set a deadline of October 2016 for all U.S. electronic tolling systems to be inter-operable.
It has been almost two years since the deadline and many systems are not inter-operable. Along the east coast, Florida’s SunPass, Georgia’s Peachpass and North Carolina’s Quick Pass are inter-operable with each other but not with the Northeast’s E-ZPass. Drivers with an E-ZPass can use it on toll roads managed by the Central Florida Expressway Authority but they cannot use it on those managed by the Florida Turnpike. Florida drivers, meanwhile, cannot use their SunPass on any roads in the Northeast.
To be fair, there are scores of toll authorities. Many use different equipment readers. For nationwide interoperability, each toll agency needs to be able to read all the others’ transponders. Since the states have been unable to agree on a single technology, each tolling agency will typically have to read the equipment of three to four other agencies. Florida is working on a technology that can read every transponder, but it is still in the testing phase.
And not only do we lack nationwide interoperability, many of the E-ZPass states are not truly interoperable with other E-ZPass states.  As I found out on a recent trip to the Midwest, the states have very different policies and back-offices that make interoperability a bit of a joke. On a trip from Washington DC to Detroit, I traveled on tolled highways in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and on the westbound trip everything went smoothly. I did not have to stop at any of the tollbooths.
However, the trip back to DC was another story. I was able to enter the Ohio Turnpike via the E-ZPass lane but when I tried to exit in the E-ZPass lane, the gate that Ohio uses in its E-ZPass lanes would not go up. Assuming the gate was not working, I backed up and went to a lane with a toll collector. I explained that I had a valid transponder but the collector said my transponder must be invalid. After several minutes of trying to explain how E-ZPass is supposed to work, I gave up and paid the toll with a credit card. My trip through Pennsylvania was uneventful so I assumed the problem was with Ohio’s system.
But several weeks later, I received two Pennsylvania violation notices in the mail. I checked my Virginia E-ZPass and found it was working properly. Dumbfounded, I called Virginia E-ZPass to try to determine the problem and received an education in the different E-ZPass rules by state.
First, states have different rules on E-ZPass accounts. My home state of Virginia allows accounts to go negative; rather than sending a violation notice, it debits $35.00 from the account holder’s credit card once the balance falls below $10.00. Some other states including Maryland also do this. But certain states including Pennsylvania and Ohio do not allow a negative balance. If an account is negative, they will not debit the credit card but will show the user as a violator.
States also have different rules on gates at toll booths. Some don’t have any gates for any lanes; many have gates for customers paying by cash only; Ohio has gates for customers paying by cash or using E-ZPass. There are a number of other policies in which they differ, but the large differences in these two policies show that E-ZPass states are not truly interoperable.
One of the most frustrating aspects is the attitude of some state toll agencies. While most try to offer good service, a few seem to offer Soviet-like service. Their approach is that they operate the toll road and if you like the service they operate, that’s good; if you don’t like it, that’s too bad. Many tolling groups, including the International Bridge Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) and the Alliance for Tolling Interoperability (ATI) have suggested toll that agencies adopt the model of the user as a customer, but not all agencies are on board.
These different operating policies will depress toll road usage. I work in the transportation field, so I understand the complexity of these toll systems. But Joe Regular just wants his E-ZPass to work. And if he is forced to pay with a credit card in Ohio or receives violation notices from Pennsylvania, he may cancel electronic tolling. There are real costs to the agency; sending out toll violation notices takes staff time and resources to confirm the violation.
Electronic tolling benefits both the toll agency and the toll road customer. For agencies, electronic tolling reduces costs by eliminating toll collectors and improves safety by eliminating merges near toll plazas. For customers, electronic tolling is more convenient than searching for quarters; many toll agencies also offer discounts for using a transponder.
Members of the E-ZPass group need to adopt consistent usage policies. If a majority of members don’t want to allow customer accounts to go negative, then the system should be set up to debit accounts more quickly. If a majority of members have true open road tolling without gates, then all agencies need to work to have open road tolling. Not every decision needs to be based on majority vote; in some cases an agency might want to try new technology.
It’s long past time for toll roads to be truly interoperable. If the E-ZPass states cannot achieve interoperability, nationwide interoperability may be many years away.
(This article first ran in the September issue of Surface Transportation Innovations.)
Baruch Feigenbaum
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